Wednesday, October 31

The Crow

(A Not-So-Scary Story)
written and illustrated by
Alison Paul
Houghton Mifflin 2007

I am of two distinct minds about this picture book.

1. Interesting idea, flawed execution.
2. Not every recent illustration graduate from art school deserves to have their final project published.

No, I don't have evidence of this last statement being true in this case, or in the many others I have seen lately. I have noticed a greater deal of picture books by first time authors who have recently graduated and am wondering if this is a trend of laziness on the part of publishers and editors. Thirty years ago, I'm sad to say, illustration for picture books was not seen as the highest aspiration for illustration majors in art school; advertising and editorial art was the brass ring. But as computers have radically changed the thinking and approach of illustration -- in addition to advancing the ability to publish rich, full-color illustration -- so has the idea that a picture book is somehow lower or more rarefied a place for the illustrator.

I also can't help but think that illustrators might be falling into the same trap many amateur writers fall into, believing that writing a picture book requires little to no study of the form. After all, it's only for children, right? Get the illustrations down, tack on a story, done.

This is a heavy rap to be laying down on this book, but the gut feels what it feels. And as I read The Crow I couldn't help but wonder if this was Paul's senior thesis project snatched up by a young editor looking to build a stable, hoping this would pan out.

It's a take on E.A. Poe's "The Raven" wherein a child wakes up to find a crow sitting on a branch outside their window. As the narrative unfolds the child imagines the crow as a king on his throne, a thief in the night, a powerful wizard, each with its own wordless spread that re-pictures the scene with the imagined one. In the right hands this would be clever but here it exists only as a clever idea.

There are places where the illustrated collage work appears sloppy, the layered effect not achieving a suggested depth, the whole looking like a hastily produced dummy of a book promising greater execution in the future. Children might not be able to see the differences between the good and the mediocre but that doesn't give adults the permission to ignore quality.

Tuesday, October 30

America Dreaming

How Youth Changed America in the 60's
Laban Carrick Hill
Little Brown 2007

Finally. Now we're getting somewhere.

In an amazingly clear and concise 175 pages or so the history and influence of the Boomer generation is laid out for a young adult audience. Starting with the post-war population boom and suburban expansion, the book focuses on the various key elements and movements that brought about the most sweeping changes in the way America and Americans defined themselves, for better or worse, and how young adults were at the forefront.

The opening chapter sets the stage as 1950's Americans flooded to the pre-fab development communities of Levittown, as television and rock-and-roll took the cultural stage, as the Cold War began to heat up. Then chapter by chapter another piece to the puzzle is added -- the race for space, the Kennedy Camelot including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Beatles and psychedelia and free love, the Civil Rights Movement. All tried and true subjects, but what makes this fascinating are the chapters on the Black Power Movement (including the full text of the Black Panther Party's Ten-Point Plan), the Chicano and Native American movements, the radical anti-war protests (not just Kent State but the Weathermen), the feminists and, as the boomers reached the 1970's, the gay rights movement with a bit of coverage on the Stonewall riots. Hill doesn't shy away from messier topics like drugs or abortion rights, covering the material in an even-handed tone that gives readers a chance to draw their own conclusions and make their own connections.

The chapters move in a mostly forward progression but thy also stand alone in examining their subjects. History isn't presented here as a liner parade of facts and dates and places, but as ideas shaped by time and place, growing organically out of what came before without the tidiness or need for perfect order. Chaotic times call for a different narrative. The book flows at it's own pace, to its internal rhythms. Readers might be surprised to learn just how politically and socially radical their parent's and grandparent's once were. If nothing more, the material gives plenty of ammunition for conversations about what things were like "back in the day."

Presentation goes a long way. The book's larger size -- approximately 10 by 12 inches -- allow for large blocks of text to be accompanied by full-page images and sidebars filled with details and tidbits. Archival photos and period ephemera make this a triumph for the designers as well; the book feels fresh without veering into forced hipness, even if the subject matter is a few decades older than its intended audience. It also makes the book half as many pages as if presented as straight text, making it feel more accessible.

My only quibble, and it is minor, is that the book really is more of a portrait of the boomer generation than a pure examination of the 1960's. At the end of the book there is a year-by-year summary of major events that starts in 1946 and ends at 1975, pretty much the formative years of the boomer generation. I doubt that anyone is really ready to present the boomers as a worthy subject of study for middle grade and young adult, but that's essentially what the 60's are about. That aside, this really is a fine introductory study for the third quarter of the 20th century.

Now we need something exactly like this for the final quarter to explain how the gen-x generation brought us to where we are today.

Tuesday, October 23

Cherry and Olive

by Benjamin Lacombe
Walker Books 2007
first published as Cerise Griotte in France
by Seuil Jeunesse 2006

Cherry is a chubby little girl, daughter of the man who runs the animal shelter across the street from their apartment. She prefers reading to social interaction -- Jules Verne is namechecked and referred to in an illustration -- though she does have a crush on the cute boy at school that all the other girls are drawn to like moths.

Cherry's only happiness comes from working at the animal shelter, cleaning out cages, where she can be with all the lost, friendless animals. One day she falls in love with a wrinkled sharpei on whom she projects her own issues and names it Olive. Clearly no one loves this dog because of it's wrinkles, just as no one loves her because, uh, because she's chubby? Sure, there's one reference to it in a classroom scene, but her anti-social behavior isn't going to change things even if she were thin. No, there's something else going on here. But what?

Her dad says she can only keep the dog if no one claims it within a month. To avoid anyone claiming the dog she takes the dog out for walks whenever anyone comes into the shop. On her walks some of the mean girls at school make fun of the dog and Cherry stands up to them in a way she wouldn't do at school. She can do it for a dog but not for herself. Interesting.

A month comes and at the end of the walk the dog makes a mad dash for its owners. Surprise! The cute boy from school is the owner. Sitting on the curb with something in common you can see that all will be different from here on out, all her problems will evaporate.

Written (or translated, no translator was given) in a way that reads like a plot summary, the text is detached, more than a little cold. There may be more that didn't make it into translation as the original title refers to cherry, cerise, the color derived from cherries, and griotte which is a specific type of sour cherry. Cherry and sour cherry? That's an interesting idea, that one of the two main characters is considered sour. But we wouldn't want to suggest that Cherry is bitter, because that would call attention to her behavior and perhaps bring up questions that cannot be answered in the story.

I'm not sure where the Olive comes from but at least its constant in one respect: both cherries and olives are full of pits.

Monday, October 22

Daft Bat

by Jeanne Willis
illustrated by Tony Ross
Andersen Press 2006

In this Aussie import the animals all view the behavior of bat decidedly odd. She requests and umbrella to keep her feet dry, she refers to "the sky below her" and claims the rising waters of the nearby river could get her ears wet. Surely there is something mad about her, the other animals believe, or else how could she have so much of her world experience be wrong-way-upwards?

Finally a wise old owl is called in, straight from central casting (I think he's the same owl from the old Tootsie Pop commercials). After asking a few questions -- What does a tree look like? What does a mountain look like? -- owl suggests the others take to the trees, hang upside down and view the world from her perspective.

Hanging from their feet, with the relevant text upside down as well, they begin to understand bat and apologize for having thought she was mad.

"Oh... don't be daft!" smiled bat.

It's a simple idea, well executed, perfect for those early lessons in learning individual perspective and at contextual anticipation. Simple cartoon-y illustrations add the extra element of humor to an already fun little book.

Plus, you get to introduce kids to the word daft.

* * * * *

It's week two of Blogging for a Cure at various locations around the Internet. The schedule for the second week is posted to the left and if you haven't checked it out, please do. There's a lot of very fine posting going on, a lot of great features and interviews with artists in the world of children's literature, and a great cause to boot.

Friday, October 19

Thumbelina of Toulaba

"After Hans Christian Andersen"
by Daniel Picouly
illustrated by Olivier Tellac
Enchanted Lion Books 2007
translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrich
published in France as Poucette de Toulaba
by Rue de Monde 2007

"Once upon a time in Toulaba, a country at the far end of far away..."

So begins the trouble with this updating of the classic Andersen tale because the illustration shows us a dark-skinned woman which implies that the setting -- an island in the Caribbean -- is at the far end of far away. Whether geological, cultural or ideological, implying these islands are at the far reaches of where this story is being told implies a colonial mindset. But let's take on the second sentence on the first page and see what happens.

"...she wanted a child, but a child no bigger than the smallest of small children. In other words, tiny. She had already had so many children that her house was full..."

Uh huh. Poor, non-white, house full of kids.

Okay, it's a picture book, and perhaps I am reading far too much into these words. But words, especially the words at the beginning of a story, set the tone and mood of the story. And the tone I'm getting here sits poorly with me.

The remainder of this tedious exercise doesn't even deal with the mother that called Thumbelina into existence so I'm not sure I understand why we need to know she had all these children, that she was dark-skinned, that she lived at the edge of what a Western European mindset would consider "exotic."

The bulk of the story has Thumbelina bouncing around, fending off marriage proposals right and left, and learning the ways of the world from all the plant and animal life she encounters. Even here the exotic is evoked as we discover at the end of the book a two-page glossary of all the native plant and animal species visited in the book. The story then is nothing more than a flimsy frame on which Picouly wants to showcase the wonders of nature.

Why drag Andersen into it, why tell the story this way at all? It's difficult to know how much is lost in the translation, how a different nationality -- the French in this case -- perceives the "other" differently than we do ourselves. But to bring a book from one culture into another asks that the reader know and understand the book as presented, not as it was perceived at home, so these questions of surface are relevant. Does the non-fiction picture book for children exist in France, or do they need to resort to having their nature books couched in old fairy tales in which to make them more palatable?

There is another element that is slightly disturbing and that is the "message" added to the story about the ever-compliant Thumbelina having to learn the power of the word "no" to be used to thwart her suitors. It's made clear early on that she does not know the words "yes" and "no" (though she is capable of much more complicated conversation throughout) until she is taught to say no and then when she uses it her suitors leave her alone. What creeps me out about this is the idea of a story teaching a small girl how to say no to advances by truly gruesome characters who think nothing of demanding she be their bride. I don't recall the female empowerment message in the original tale, and instead of feeling like an updated element as it's presented here it has all the subtlety of teaching small children about turning down the advances of sexual predators. That may not be the intent at all, but its incongruity within the text leaves that sort of bad taste in my mouth.

By all means, check it out for yourself and let me know if you think I'm being too harsh. I doubt it, but I'm open to alternate suggestions about why this experience left me feeling like I needed to take a shower afterward.

Thursday, October 18

Miracle Wimp

Erik P. Kraft
Little, Brown 2007

This is the story of Tom Mayo, nickname Miracle Wimp. Sixteen years old, further down on the pecking order, working his way through the vicissitudes of social life in high school. Should have been in Computer Animation, wound up in wood shop.

Where is this story going? Good question. Page by page there's a new vignettes, each no longer than a page or two, another little window into Miracle Wimp's life. Somewhat linear, bits and pieces of a story thread pop up. Easy to pick up and put down. Easy to abandon. Perfectly enjoyable, easily forgettable.

Two thirds of the way through Tom grows a bit of a spine. Things actually seem to be coming together. Is Kraft going to knot all these little bits into a massive gabbeh of lush storytelling? The kid's got some better friends, a kinda-sorta girlfriend, a small cache of cool. It's coming into the home stretch, down to the wire...

Nope, that's it. Book over.

Fair enough, it does pick up steam in the last half and seems to pull itself out of being just a collection of random-seeming vignettes, but coming on the heels of finishing the first two Wimpy Kid books I have some questions. Do teen age boys really want to read about nerds and the socially maladjusted hosers (here referred to as Donkeys and bolos) they deal with every day at school? If you had to go through all this in middle school would you still be interested it in high school? Is this really the only way to capture teen boys who don't want to delve into fantasy? Is the best we can offer them in terms of realistic fiction that isn't the cold world of The Chocolate War?

Yes, the bits ring true, the totally awkwardness is palpable, but on a lot of levels I can't help wonder if this book wouldn't track better with a certain sector of the male adult population. Guys who were there once, who came out of it okay, and can look back and laugh.

I laughed a couple times, but it was the hit-or-miss laughter of watching stand-up. That's no coincidence; Kraft does stand-up comedy and that's the exact rhythm of this book. Jab, jab, jab, punchline. Smirk, smirk, smirk, laugh. Ponder, muse, laugh, use the bathroom, answer the phone, take a nap, grab a snack, pick up the book, open it randomly, read.

Literature for a short attention spans that...

What? Huh? Was I saying something?

Wednesday, October 17

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency

by Daniel Pinkwater
1977 Aladdin anniversary edition 2007

Pinkwater, I've come to understand, is an acquired taste. Or rather, his books are a dividing line between those who get his style of absurdest humor and those who'd prefer something else. It's mis-characterized as "boy humor" but is really a question an individual's tolerance for accepting the extreme in the service of the story.

It's Thanksgiving and Arthur is sent out with $16 to buy a turkey. But the deli doesn't have their turkey and there isn't a turkey to be had anywhere in Hoboken. He reports back to his mother the situation and she sends him back out in search of a couple of chickens, or perhaps duck. It should be noted that Arthur's family doesn't particularly like turkey but it's thanksgiving and that's what good Americans eat and so a turkey must be found. Or at least a couple of chickens.

Arthur stumbles on a door where a small sign advertises something called "the chicken system" by a Professor Mazzocchi that seems promising. Stepping up to the door Arthur can hear the sounds of animals behind it and discovers that for his $16 he can obtain a 266-pound chicken named Henrietta. Walking her home on a leash Aurthur becomes fond of her and by the time he gets home there's no way they're going to eat the new family pet. Arthur's family has meatloaf for thanksgiving, and no one complains.

Arthur spends some time that holiday weekend teaching Henrietta some tricks the way he would a dog. Patiently he teaches her how to hop up a ladder and go down the slide at a local park and Arthur can't wait to show off his new pet. Sadly, Henrietta the 266-pound chicken becomes a burden at home -- especially when people see her on the street and mistake her for a white gorilla and call the police -- and Arthur is forced to return her.

The emergency in Hoboken occurs when Henrietta gets loose and is terrorizing the city. Experts are called in to try and catch the loose chicken and the longer she's out and about the more terrified the citizens become. The news is particularly good at building fear and terror where there is none (sounds familiar) and finally the solution is to try and make Henrietta feel more welcome by treating her as if she was just like everyone else. Instead of running in fear or trying to chase her down everyone views her as a matter of fact, another piece of the neighborhood, look, there's the nice chicken I was telling you about. Henrietta calms down and behaves as happy as she did before she was labeled a terror. Hoboken has a new mascot and Arthur couldn't be happier.

Rereading this classic (30 year and still in print? I call that a classic in this age of 6-month obsolescence) it's clear that it has been tweaked just a tiny bit for modern readers; when the Mayor of Hoboken announces that he's found an expert to hunt down Henrietta he notes that he has e-mailed him, something that couldn't have been done in 1977. There may have been more, equally subtle changes but for the most part it reads as most enduring books do, as both a period piece and as an awkwardly envisioned piece of contemporary children's literature. This is important to note because I had a conversation with a parent yesterday who didn't want their son reading "older books" because he isn't interested in anything that doesn't "feel contemporary."

I see. So when he's in high school and is asked to read Fitzgerald or the poetry of Whitman he isn't going to see the relevance of that? Peter Pan is fine so long as it's a modern adaptation? At what point does an "older" title cease to be relevant to a young reader?

Oh, that's right, it doesn't. Kids don't care about the age of a story, only that it's interesting, engaging, well-written and fun, whatever their definition of fun. As I said, there are those who get Pinkwater's sense of the strange and those who do not, but more often it's those who do not deciding for those who may like his books. Really, it's okay if parents and children don't agree on reading material. And if Pinkwater is their cup of tea -- and they really ought to try this particular tea -- then so be it.

Sunday, October 14

Snowflakes for Robert's Snow: "Snow Day!" by Barbara Lehman

Peering out their early morning window the children smile, quietly enjoying the moment of realization of the snow day before them.

Looking through our Internet widows today we see another snow day is upon us, with many more to follow in the coming weeks, as bloggers from all walks of children's literature begin featuring Snowflakes for Robert's Snow: for Cancer's Cure. From now through early December bloggers are showcasing the contributions by individual children's book artists, each a decorated wooden snowflake to be auctioned off in coming weeks to benefit sarcoma research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Today I'm featuring "Snow Day!" by Barbara Lehman

Those familiar with The Red Book, Museum Trip and her most recent book Rainstorm probably don't need an introduction to Lehman's work. Beginning three years ago with the release of The Red Book Lehman joined an elite subgroup within the world of picture books, namely the increasingly popular wordless picture book. In each of her books she explores the relationship with place and perspective, inside and outside, the viewer and the viewed.

The Red Book
follows two parallel narratives, one with a boy another with a girl, who despite different locales appear to be aware of one another, as if each were part of the other's daydream. Museum Trip takes a field trip straggler deep into the museum exhibits themselves, offering up the prospect that an open and inquisitive mind can not only visit the past but affect the future. Rainstorm literally sends a bored boy on a journey of discovery through a secret tunnel to an island where children are playing in the sun, the mythic "there" longed for when housebound. In all her books Lehman works her own magic with clean outlined drawings and a bold color palate taking inspiration from the ligne claire style of Herge's Tintin.

In her snowflake Lehman continues her fascination with the inside-outside world by providing us both sides of the window into the heart of the snow day from the heart of the snowflake. Outside the snow falls silently, and silently witnessed from within; Flip the snowflake and we're instantly inside, bathed in the warm yellow of home, the smell of hot cocoa as sure as the coziness of the small cat coiled at the children's feet. One event, many perspectives, the art of Barbara Lehman at its best.

"Snow Day!" is but one of many artist-created snowflakes being auctioned off as part of Robert's Snow: for Cancer's Cure. The event was created to help raise funds when children's book author Grace Lin's husband Robert Mercer was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a cancer of the bone, and was told that his best chance for long-term survival was a breakthrough in cancer research. Robert and Grace established the fundraising auction in 2004 which has since become an annual event raising more than $200,000 for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. A more complete history, with other information about Robert's Snow can be found by following the links.

For information about the online auction itself, including instructions for when and how to bid, click here. You'll notice that the auction is actually broken up into three separate auctions, and that artists snowflakes are continually being added. Barbara Lehman's "Snow Day!" is part of the third auction taking place December 3 through December 7.

As I mentioned, many in the kidlit blogosphere have gotten together to help spread the word about this event. All of us have volunteered to highlight different artists snowflakes on different days leading up to the auctions themselves. For a schedule of the current week's featured artists please check out the links in the sidebar.

This massive undertaking has been done in coordination with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and was the brainchild of Jules and Eisha, the dynamic duo who blog under the collective title of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. I cannot underscore how monumental this task has been, wrangling bloggers probably akin to herding feral cats and catching greased pigs at the same time. Here's a list of today's artists and bloggers helping spread the word. Go ahead and give them a gander if you haven't already.

ChatRabbit talks with Randy Cecil
The Longstockings are up with Michelle Chang
Cynthia Lord has a contest concerning Kevin Hawkes
and over at In the Pages you can enter a drawing to win a copy of Lissey's Friends signed by Grace Lin!

Go on, now, scoot!

Thursday, October 11

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam

An Illustrated Memoir
by Ann Marie Fleming
Riverhead Books / Penguin 2007

Ann Marie Fleming's great-grandfather was Long Tack Sam, one of the great international magicians of the late 19th and early 20th century. Growing up Marie had heard many casual references to her great-grandfather but there was little real information to go on. With members of her family spread across the world she would glean bits here and there until finally she decided to find out who he was and document the process in video.

This book is an outgrowth of that process, what Penguin calls a "graphic memoir," that on the cynical side could be seen as a very creative movie-tie in for the Fleming's award-winning documentary. I wasn't aware of it's origins when I started, and it isn't necessary to know that going in either, but I mention it because the reviews I have seen for the book only refer to it as a graphic novel. That was my initial reason for searching it out. I'm not so sure I agree with that label, but I'm pressing on with the review anyway.

If you've seen any magic in your life, chances are good you've seen something with Long Tack Sam's influence stamped into it. Seen anyone pull an endless strand of threaded needles from their mouth after having swallowed the needle and thread separately? How about a magician who could form ice from a bowl of tap water? Perhaps you saw that movie The Prestige about a pair of maniacal, battling magicians? There's a scene which mis-characterizes a famous trick where a Chinese magician makes a full goldfish bowl magically appear. All that comes from Long Tack Sam.

Fleming takes her time building the story, her stick figures standing in for herself as she makes her inquiries, with the majority of the book profusely illustrated with stills from her film and the various paper ephemera she dug up in the process. Interviewing family members and respected magicians and the keepers of their history Fleming manages to piece together no fewer that three official stories about her great-grandfather's early days. In one he was traded by his poor parents essentially for a sack of beans; another has him running away rather than face his father after shaming the family name. As the pieces come together what becomes clear is that, above all, Long Tack Sam was a born showman, a storyteller, a modern day shaman.

Snapshots from various family albums and handbills help paint the vaudeville era, which I'm beginning to see come more into vogue in children's non-fiction. (I hope to eventually review a picture book called Footwork that covers the same period as Long Tack Sam but follows the early days of Fred Astaire and his sister Adele.) Sam's travels take him around the world, eventually to Austria where he meets his wife. But Sam doesn't settle down, he keeps to the road, eventually deciding to incorporate his wife and daughters into his act in order to keep them together. Sam continues to wow audiences and becomes an official cultural ambassador for China. Sam and his family make friends in Hollywood, a place where many former vaudevillians are making big money. Sam's daughter screen test for the movie adaptation of The Good Earth but Sam puts his foot down, refusing to allow his daughters to tarnish the image he had spent many years building of beautiful, athletic Chinese people and culture; Hollywood was more interested in showcasing Chinese as dope smoking, murderous criminals. Mao seizes his chain of theatres in China as part of the reformation against Western influences. Racism and bigotry follow Sam and his family wherever they go; having married an Austrian forced them to leave behind their family home when the Nazis came to power. They flee to Italy under fascism scares them to America, then their visas expire and they are forced to go to Shanghai until the Japanese invade and...

If Long Tack Sam hadn't been as famous as he was he would never have lived this incredible globetrotting life. That said, the Long family endured what many around them endured -- the prejudices, the stereotypes, the demise of their livelihood as vaudeville was replaced by other media -- so that in an odd way The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam comes to be both a biography and a mirrored history of the early 20th century, an entirely fascinating document.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

by Jeff Kinney

It's good, I like it, it's just not a graphic novel.

That's right, you heard me. Not. A. Graphic. Novel.

I knew things were going to get sticky with this whole kidlit graphic novel thing and here we go. I know I'm going to come off sounding like a stuffy old dog fart at a cocktail party but I feel I need to get this out there.

This is the litmus test: If you remove the images from the graphic novel -- read the text straight through -- does it still make sense, is it still a coherent narrative? Conversely, if you remove the text and read only the pictures is the story still apparent? You can have a graphic novel without words, but a graphic novel that works without pictures is just an illustrated novel.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is an illustrated novel. Remove the illustrations and you have a jolly little middle grade reader. Remove the text and you have a collection of little comic images that occasionally can stand on their own but otherwise exist only to illustrate a part of the story that could have stood on its own.

I'm going to say this again, and I may say it a few more times throughout the review just to be clear: I liked this book.

Starting out its life as an online comic, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is exactly what it says, the diary of Greg Heffley, your average middle school boy who's a little further down on the food chain than most kids. He's got himself figured for around 52nd in the pecking order and he relates what it means to be that far along while trying to make his way through the various obstacles that face kids on the edge of puberty. Naturally bullies are a problem, but so are girls, his older brother, his younger brother, his parents, his friend's, his friend's parents, even a piece of cheese that has been out on the blacktop for over a year is troublesome. Working his way through the school year Greg attempts to find himself using the sort of tortured logic that often leads to disastrous results.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid trades in the same areas of subversive and slightly gross humor that children enjoy and parents wince at. When Greg applies to be the cartoonist for the newspaper (a particularly funny story thread with a very strong ring of truth to it) he manages to catch a glimpse of the work of his fellow aspirants that reveals their baser nature: insult and poop jokes abound. Kids naturally find this stuff funny because it is, and parents don't find it funny for the same reasons. The thing is, what kids respond to is the subversive nature of laughing at the things they know upset their parents.

Sadly, I know that this book has moments that teach kids what most adults would consider bad examples. Greg likes to play video games, something he is restricted from doing because he doesn't get enough exercise. So he goes over to his friend's house and plays his games there, splashing himself with water from a hose to pretend he's all sweaty from playing outside when he comes home. Bad enough in the example department, but worse is that his friend's dad checks out the Internet reviews of the games they play before they can play them, screening for violent content. When Greg gets the idea to put his violent game disks inside his baby brother's learning disks for screening and approval purposes the little light bulb goes off in kids heads. Presuming it hasn't already.

One element I saw actually duplicated in the home: the moron test, where the joke is that lower intelligence is linked to your hand size being equal to the size of your head. Naturally Greg's less-than-bright friend puts his had to his face for comparison and has his own hand used to slap his own face. The kind of prank I watched my girls practice on each other, their friends, and eventually me.

To those adults who think "Well! We just won't have any of THAT in our house!" I would strongly caution you to consider that when you attempt to remove this kind of influence from kids lives by removing the book you set them up for learning this sort of information on the streets. It also underscores why book censorship doesn't work -- the information is out there and you can't hide it from them by removing a book. Your little perfect prim and proper darlings are not the same when they are in school (I'm a former middle grade teacher, I know), and what they learn on the playground might astonish you. But, if they all read the same books, and they all know the jokes, then there's less of a chance for them to be sucked into the pratfalls.

(For people who use this logic to homeschool -- and I have heard this "logic" used -- that these sorts of things are precisely the reason they don't want their children in public schools, might I suggest that down the road your children will find themselves surrounded by these same children who, as adults, can spot the weakest link from a mile off. It may seem like rude and vicious playground games now, but they level the playing field in the long run and keep kids sharp for when they are in the big, wide world and have to keep an eye out for the sharks; those kids who have been sheltered from these realities find themselves easy chum for sharks. Don't get me started about how this applies to isolationist political dogma.)

This book hardly needs any adult help -- the kids know it's out there. The word of mouth is strong and where it isn't all a child need to see is the title and they're sold. If they come across the greatly expanded online version they will see that this is the first of five books that have been and continue to be chronicled on the Internet. Ignore the Wimpy Kid now at your own peril.

But whatever you do, don't call it a graphic novel.

Wednesday, October 10

Cowboy & Octopus

by Jon Scieszka
illustrated by Lane Smith
Viking 2007

Cowboy and Octopus are friends. Cowboy is a paper doll cut from a book. His clothing tabs occasionally show. Octopus was cut from a comic book. His bold colors and zip-a-tone dots give him a party dress appearance.

"Do you like our book?" asks Cowboy.
"Do you like our book?" asks Octopus.
"Yes, I do. I like it very much," I say.
"Do you think kids will understand the stories?" asks Octopus.
"Sure," I say, " They have that same irreverent humor of George and Martha books, but with some unexpected twists."
"What's a Martha," wonders Octopus.
"Twists?" drawls Cowboy, "What do you mean when you say twists?'
"Well, Cowboy, while Octopus can be a very understanding friend -- eating your seven course meal of beans without complaining the way George eats Martha's pea soup without telling her he didn't like it -- you are much more blunt about things."
"What's a George?" asks Octopus.
"For example," I continue, "When you asked about each others fancy hats, Cowboy, you flat out told your friend that you didn't like Octopus's hat. I believe you compared it to a cow pie."
"Yeah, and he hit me over the head with a hammer!"
"True," I say, "But that was different. That came from a misunderstanding."
"But I said that being a friend meant being honest with one another," says Cowboy. "Should I have lied?"
"You asked me about the twists. That's what I was talking about. I didn't expect you to be so... coarse."
"Horse? You didn't expect me to be a horse?"
"Not horse, course. Rough around the edges."
"That's not my fault I'm rough, I was just cut out that way."
"Me too," says Octopus.
"But you still liked it, our book?" wonders Cowboy.
"You didn't say anything about my scary costume?" whines Octopus.
"We have to save something for people to be surprised about," I say.
"Yeah," says Cowboy, "I still have nightmares about that."
"I trust we'll be seeing more of you boys down the road?"
"Maybe," says Cowboy.
"Maybe," says Octopus.

Tuesday, October 9

Little Eagle

Chen Jiang Hong
Enchanted Lion Books 2007
Originally published as Petit Aigle
Album l'Ecole des Loisirs 2003
translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick

In 15th century China Master Yang finds a boy half frozen in the snow. The boy's parents were killed by General Zhao so Master Yang decides to be the boy's guardian.

There appears to be nothing unusual about Master Yang until one night when the boy awakens and discovers Master practicing Eagle boxing, a school of Kung Fu. The boy observes his Master at his studies, studies and practices his every move, until one day when he finds the perfect opportunity to practice his newly acquired skills on some town bullies. When Master Yang catches the boy at this he is initially upset but decides to take the boy's enthusiasm to train him properly in the martial arts. And he renames him Little Eagle.

Ten years on and Little Eagle has become a master himself. One night General Zhao has come to get a mystical book of secrets that Master Yang possesses. The book contains all of Master Yang's knowledge, wisdom and fighting secrets, with it the General hopes to become the most unbeatable warrior around. Both Master Yang and Little Eagle do battle with the General and his men and handily send the army packing but at the cost of Master Yang's life. With his remaining breath and strength Master Yang confesses to Little Eagle "There is no book, it is all in you. May wisdom and abundance follow you. I will watch over you always."

The story is a fairly common one though it would be new to young boys who might benefit from the message. Underneath the fairly simple story there are questions of when and how to use (or not use) force, how to deal with anger and revenge, the passing of knowledge between generations, and the benefits of discipline. Master Yang knows the General wants his "book" and the boy might want his revenge for having lost his parents, yet for both they refuse to deal with the General until he comes to threaten them. Even then they do not act out of anger, only self-defense.

Yes, this is a picture book, a beautiful one that contains within it the vistas of an art house Kung Fu movie. The predominant color and tone is red and yet Hong keeps the feeling warm rather than angry. And when it comes time for battle the gentle pen and ink drawings hold their own, adding strength to the dynamic compositions.

Really, this book caught me off guard. Siting alongside other picture books it feels all rather mature, almost like an adult book had been mis-shelved. Going in I wouldn't have imagined this story being made accessible to an older picture book crowd, and like a perfectly executed slight-of-hand I'm still not certain how it was done.

Thursday, October 4

So Said Ben

drawings by Michael McCurdy
Creative Editions 2007

Ben here is Ben Franklin. I love Ben Franklin. He was our first real Renaissance Man, our own homegrown Leonardo da Vinci. Smart, compassionate, witty and full of all the faults and foibles one would expect from a human, and relatively open and honest about himself.

That's Ben, though, not this book. This book, a collection of Franklin's witticisms drawn mostly from his Poor Richard's Almanac days is a remarkably ugly book. Each spread features one of Ben's sayings on the left side in large see-them-from-the-back-of-the-room letters, paragraph at the bottom in sleazy-contract-small-print that either explains or expands on Ben's life or the expression, facing a black and white scratchboard-like illustration that illuminates (sometimes in the most general and puzzling sense) the expression at hand.

"Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," is opposite an illustration of what looks like Ebenezer Scrooge shocked to find a cat and a chicken staring at him in his bead while some fresh-faced farm hand peers in the open window smiling like he just set a paper bag full of cow pies on fire on Scrooge's front step. There has to be a better way to illustrate this saying than to show an old man being harassed by farm animals -- where's the health, the wealth, where's the wisdom in this picture? Is it that the early bird gets to cruise for old men before they wake up and play pranks on them?

I'm guessing the book is for teachers who want to introduce Ben Franklin to younger audiences; that's how I read the disparity between the large type and illustrations against the small print with background. A teacher would show the spread and explain the situation or give a little history. Still, it's an ugly book and I think if I were back in the classroom I'd scrounge my own pictures and put together a better presentation before considering this book.

"A penny saved is a penny earned," was another of Ben's. No illustration necessary, save your pennies and buy a facsimile edition of Ben's Poor Richard's Almanac instead.

"Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." Or so said Ben. Don't worry, it's not in the book.

Wednesday, October 3

excelsior blogiversary

Today is officially the first anniversary of the excelsior file. I like that the word giver is embedded in the word blogiversary.

A lot has happened in the last year. It isn't like me to toot my own horn but I'm feeling like maybe this once I need to get over the awkwardness of the whole thing and just do it.

A year ago today I jumped into the kidlit blogosphere with the idea of using this blog as a place for exploring my continued personal education in children's literature. I had just started reviewing for The Horn Book Guide but knew I wanted to say more about books than could fit into 60 word summaries.

I can get wordy. I'll try to keep this brief.

As months went on I wasn't sure if the blog was anything more than the proverbial tree falling in the forest: did anyone hear me as I felled those trees? Comments were scarce, other bloggerss out there were covering the same territory (better in many cases, I thought), and I was on the verge of giving up and refocusing my energies elsewhere. But all along there was a stream of comments from kidlit bloggers -- a trickle grew to a brook, then into a stream, not quite a river -- and there was no doubt of my continuing; I felt compelled, I couldn't stop.

Today I find myself at a different juncture. I'm still blogging, still reviewing, but I feel a need to go beyond reviewing books. I've occasionally dabbled in opinions and rants but they always felt out of place on this blog.

Then there was this little matter this past August, when I applied for grad school and then managed to get myself accepted. Starting in January (unless something staggeringly unusual or unfortunate happens) I'll begin work on my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

As part of the process I decided I wanted to set up a place for documenting the journey from kidlit blogger to kidlit author. Or at least potential kidlit author. So for the past month behind the scenes I've been working out the rough edges of a new space, a new blog, one that will run parallel with this one. It's called fomagrams.

the excelsior file will continue as a home for reviews of children's literature, as it almost always has, and I'm hoping to maintain the steady flow of reviews. fomagrams will cover more personal issues, it will document my student life, my home life, and the various and sundry things that I feel the sudden urge to share with the world. Those who want only the reviews can keep visiting me here (and I hope you do) while those who want to watch the slow-motion train wreck that is my mid-life academic career can visit me at fomagrams.

To all who have joined me this far -- both in the post and with the blog -- thanks. Sorry it wasn't as short as I'd hoped. I'll work on keeping it shorter next year.

We're gonna break out the hats and hooters, it's party time...

Tuesday, October 2

and to name but just a few: Red Yellow Green Blue

by Laurie Rosenwald
Blue Apple / Chronicle Books 2007

This is one of those books that reviews best visually. Here's the front and back cover spread.

This genius of a mess of a color concept book revels in the playfulness of its rhythm and the perfect child-like roughness of its collage work.

I'll grant, this book won't be for everyone, especially those who might feel it's difficult for small readers to "track" the flow of words and images on the page.

Rosenwald, a graphic designer by profession, knows how to have fun, a rare commodity it seems these days in picture books.

Waiting for Mama

by Tae-Jun Lee
illustrated by Dong-Seong Kim
NorthSouth Books 2007
first published in Korea 1938

This book gave me the creeps, and even once I sorted out the problem with the final spread I still find it a little weird.

A child goes to the trolley stop to wait for his mother. With each arriving trolley he looks for his mother and asks the driver "Have you seen my mother?" He waits all day, into the early evening, watching the dull winter day fade into a dark winter night. Bundled against the cold, he waits. And snow begins to fall until, at last, the child is buried. The end.

No! Wait!

Study that last spread carefully -- it is a huge cityscape done in shades of seasick green, and you can see a just-ever-so-slightly-darker green splotch of mother and child walking home, alone, at night, through the snow.

Am I missing something here? An unwatched child can go an entire day at a trolley stop without being noticed or cared for? He waits all day for his mother because... she ditched him to go to work and thought it was okay to leave the little fellow behind? I'll bend quite a way forward and backward on a book from another time and place because I can't hold my modern expectations to an older book, except that I need to have something to hold onto in order to make it relevant to my experience if it's going to be republished. Especially with a children's picture book, if I'm going to have to explain some element (Why is the boy alone all day? Why does no one help him? Why did his mother leave him?) then I need to be able to place it into a context more complete than "Well, that's just the way things were."

As far as the illustrations go, though they are contemporary they are meant to feel older, from a different time, which explains their monochromatic feel. The browns and greens do recall those days when color printing was prohibitive and present a sort of mood, but that doesn't explain why any editor would have found the last spread acceptable. It is way too easy to scan that final scene and not see the parent and child, leaving a reader only with the final image of the motherless child buried in snow at the trolley stop. Nothing before in the scant few lines of text indicates that she has arrived and they have been unified, no text explains that everything is okay. It is the most morose ending one could imagine, and while you spend the entire book hoping for the better, without catching that tiny (less than half an inch) image of the reunited family you find yourself drawing the saddest conclusion.

I think this book should be required reading for illustration students as an example of how not to illustrate a book that requires so much storytelling from the visuals.

Monday, October 1

Grimmoire 55: Rumplestiltskin

It's been a while, hasn't it? Something about the summer just pulled me away from the Grimm and into the poetry. But with the chill in the fall air and the change of light it felt like time to reenter the forests.

I almost wanted to ignore this chestnut altogether. The story has been told and retold and, really, it isn't that good in my opinion. But I remembered once in a drawing class we were asked to copy an illustration that was shown upside down, then turn the finished drawing right-side up when we were done. The exercise was meant to highlight just how much the brain "dictates" the way a thing is viewed and how you can train your eye to actually "see" the familiar in a new way.

No, I didn't read the book upside down, I just reversed the gender of all the players as I read. Very interesting.

The story starts with a father who likes to get attention. To gain the king's favor he boldly announces that he has a daughter who can spin straw into gold. Flip that and you have a mother who likes attention and makes a claim to the queen that she has a son who... well, he wouldn't be spinning, now, would he? So let's say she has a son crush coal into diamonds with his bare hands because he's so strong.

Well, gold/diamonds pleases the king/queen so much that s/he demands the child be locked into a tower with all the supplies they need. By morning they are to perform the miracles of their parental bragging or else they will be killed. Why the parents aren't held accountable is beyond me, but that's life in the Grimmoire.

Realizing the hopelessness of their situation the children weep, until a funny little creature appears and asks them why they weep. Once explained the sprite asks what they will trade if he can perform their tasks. Each is wearing a necklace (probably a memento of their long-dead father/mother) and gladly makes the trade. The next morning the royal personages are happy to see the task completed. So happy, in fact, that they lock the children into a larger room with more supplies in which to feed the royal greed.

Another night of weeping, another visit by the sprite, another trade for a piece of jewelry, this time a ring. The task completed, the king/queen are still unsatisfied and demand a third go-round. Now the children have nothing with which to barter, so the sprite asks for their firstborn child in payment.

They balk. First, there's nothing to suggest they'll ever have children; second they couldn't possibly trade away their own children. Ah, so at the very least they don't think they are anything like the parent that dumped them as part of a brag. There's also a telling line, when they plead against giving up an as-yet-born child where the sprite says "...something living is more precious to me that all the treasures of the world." Huh. Imagine that. Someone in the Grimmoire thinks children are precious.

But the little sprite hints that once they have completed the task for the third time they will become members of the royal family themselves...

Which brings us to another interesting point. Royalty in the Grimmoire tend to be male -- princes and kings -- who also tend to marry for love-at-first-sight or money, unless tricked into marrying a witch. The unattached queen doesn't exist. But what an interesting idea, to have an unattached queen who could take her love of money and combine it with a strapping young man who can press gems for her whenever she so desired! In both cases, once married they would be expected to birth/sire children and their magic powers would render them weak and the whole marriage becomes a doomed farce, but that's not what this story is about.

So a child is born and along comes the sprite to demand their payment. Naturally the new parents resist and finally a deal is struck: if you can guess my name within three days, says the sprite, you may keep your child. The new queen/king rack their brains and try to guess names but in the end it is one of their messengers who reports back about a little sprite dancing with glee around a fire that s/he's about to acquire the newborn and spouts off their name in their little dance-rhyme.

And their name is... poltergeist. Okay, so Rumplestilskin translates into "little rattle post" which is a name for a ghost that goes around rattling things. He is called a dwarf in the story but occupants of the Grimmoire would have understood it's name to mean a type of a rattling host. Which would explain, just a little, why it treasured life so much because a ghost ain't got none. The naming aspect is interesting because it indicates a power in the ability to banish. Generally this sort of thing only comes into play with God (big G) and various demonic personages. So with all this info why do we always get a cute little garden gnome in the illustrations?

The third day arrives and after toying with the poltergeist the child bride/groom finally says their name at which Rumplestilskin tears him/herself in half and disappears.

Closer reading of the meaning within the stories can be examined at SurLaLune which backs up the scholarly aspects of specifics, like the gift of a ring having more significance than a necklace because it indicates a proposal of marriage. That sort of thing. In the notes -- also noted in the Wikipedia entry -- originally Rumpelstiltskin doesn't tear himself in two, he rides off on a soup ladle. Why the Grimm Brothers felt the need to kill off the evil at the end of the story isn't clear; speculation was that they had to show how evil and unsympathetic he truly was.

Moral of the story? Well, it's about bragging and boasting, isn't it? About the evil perpetrated by the parents, yes? Forget the royal greed, it's self-preservation, right? Do what you must to stay alive and beat the devil, that's all by-the-way. Children? Throwaways. Only a poltergeist thinks they're precious. I'm sure Rumpelstiltskin was the first to utter the phrase "No child left behind." (What is it about being left behind anyway?)

Indeed, the Grimmoire teaches us many things.

Good Enough to Eat

Brock Cole
FSG 2007

If this isn't a retelling of a classic fairy tale, it sure feels like one. It hits all the right notes and gets the feel of a Grimm story with a strident ease.

A poor girl with no name is called many things by the people of her town -- Scraps-and-Smells, Skin -and-Bones, Sweets-and-Treats -- because she stands around the market stalls selling what food scraps and paper puppets she can mange to get by. Whenever necessary, she begs.

The people of the town ask the mayor to do something about her but, in pitch-perfect political avoidance he points out "The poor are always with us" and the matter is settled as far as he's concerned.

One day the town is visited by an ogre who comes for a fair maiden. None of the townfolk are willing to part with their daughters but they're quick to offer up the poor homeless girl. Set outside the town wall (in a sack, along with other offerings meant to please) the ogre asks "Who goes there?" and when the girl replies by one of her given names "Scraps-and-Smells!" the ogre becomes upset and shouts back to the townfolk "Not good enough!"

They try again, sending the girl out with greater offerings for the ogre, this time she announces herself as Skin-and-Bones and the ogre once again rejects the town's offering. Finally, in desperation, the girl is offered up with swords and weapons and gold and silver. This time she announces herself as Sweets-and-Treats and, as the ogre is pleased by this, commences to gobble the girl up. But in true fairy tale fashion she uses the knife to cut herself out of the ogre's belly and leaves the town behind, taking all their gold and silver as her reward.

And she declares her new name is Good-Enough-to-Eat.

It's a subtle message about how we treat the poor, and how those we sacrifice can come back to get the last laugh, but as a picture book story it is excellent on its surface story alone. The text itself, written with a breezy feel that never drags, contains little rhymed couplets to help propel things along much like a Grimm tale. The familiarity of the text still leaves me feeling like I've read it somewhere before, but not in a bad way.

Cole's watercolor style is expressive and playful in a way reminiscent of James Stevenson. It's a little loose but in the same way that loose jeans feel comfortable. It's not flashy, it's not gimmicky, and if it's an original story then there's no reason why it shouldn't become a modern classic.